Food-borne Illnesses in U.S. Cost $152B Annually

WEDNESDAY March 3, 2010 -- Food-borne illnesses cost the United States an estimated $152 billion each year in health-related expenses, much more than previously thought, a new report contends.

"These costs are significantly more than previous official estimates, and it demonstrates the serious burden that food-borne illness places on society," Sandra Eskin, director of the Food Safety Campaign at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Washington, D.C., said during a Tuesday press conference.

These health-related costs include physician services, hospital services, medicines and also quality-of-life losses, such as deaths, pain, suffering and disability.

Every year, an estimated 76 million Americans are sickened by contaminated food and 5,000 of these people die, according to federal statistics.

Although most of these of costs are due to unidentified germs, infections from well-known pathogens play a large role. For example, costs related to campylobacter exceed $18.8 billion annually; costs linked to salmonella are estimated at $14.6 billion; and costs related to listeria are $8.8 billion, according to the report.

The majority of food-borne illnesses are caused by produce, which are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Thirty-nine percent of E. coli outbreaks were due to produce regulated by the FDA, the report said.

According to the report, California, Texas, New York, Florida and Pennsylvania have the highest costs related to food-borne illness, ranging from $6.7 billion to $18.6 billion each year.

The report was based on federal government sources using the same statistical methods used by the FDA, report author Robert L. Scharff, an assistant professor in the Department of Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University, said during the teleconference.

The numbers are larger than previously reported because "this report looks at a comprehensive set of all the pathogens that cause food-borne illness," Scharff said. Earlier reports looked at only a few pathogens, he noted.

"The 'costs' of food-borne illness can be measured in millions of cases of suffering, and thousands of deaths each year in the U.S.," said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. "Frankly, that has always been enough to convince me we should be doing more to address this problem. But if it hasn't convinced you, maybe the price tag in a more conventional currency will: more than $150 billion a year."

Eskin hopes the report will spur Congress to pass a food-safety bill that with strengthen the FDA's food-safety efforts by giving the agency more authority over the foods it regulates and more money to devote to making the food supply safer.

President Barack Obama last year created the Food Safety Working Group. "We are still waiting for Congress to pass a comprehensive food safety law," Eskin said, adding that the House of Representatives passed a food-safety bill in July, but the Senate has yet to act.

The new report was sponsored by a variety of groups, including the Center for Foodborne Illness Research & Prevention, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Consumers Union, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Trust for America's Health. It was conducted by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University.

In October, the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report on food-borne illness related to foods regulated by the FDA. According to the report, which used data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 10 riskiest foods are: leafy greens, eggs, tuna, oysters, potatoes, cheese, ice cream, tomatoes, sprouts and berries.

The report noted that food-borne illnesses are becoming more common in the United States for several reasons, including an increasingly complex and global food system, outdated food safety laws and the rise of large-scale production and processing methods.

More information

For more on food-borne illness, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Posted: March 2010


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